No Trace of Origin, No Thorn

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The poems in Copperhead use the deeply wrought questions with which it is concerned to wisely come up with a sort of memoir, which is attaching deeply felt memories with deeply felt language, thus making it literature.

Rachel Richardson’s Copperhead is a poetic expression of the South, its feelings and memories, and the physical manifestations of its culture in music, food, and the thick air. Some of these memories are horrible, but Richardson uses a technically flawless form, surprising diction, and a light shade of blue to color most of the poems in a satisfying, absorbing way.

The poems in this book frequently blend the intertwined, sometimes complementary and sometimes contemptuous histories of what was called “race” music and what was called “hillbilly” music. The poems handle memories of the South—as place, as legacy, and as a kind of personal barometer—with a range of strategies. Some of these strategies work better for me than others: the evocative uses of place, for example, works. Richardson is masterful at showing an ugly action in an ecstatic place, Louisiana—or she shows people feeling ecstatic or being virtuous in an outright ugly place, also Louisiana. She also sometimes uses a formal majesty to convey her ideas. Take, for instance, the wonderful poem “Children Born after the War,” which uses an eleven-line nonce form and a passionate syntax to evoke most of the themes of the book: “…And each bright / fruit you tongue out of its shell / comes as if on air—no trace of origin, no thorn.” Richardson here equals the formal beauty of Derek Walcott’s poems concerning the brutal beauty of the Caribbean or Czeslaw Milosz’s on Poland’s terrible history during the Second World War.

Richardson also uses a refrain, or constant, to add wisdom and depth to the arc of the book. These seven untitled poems are a series called “Signs.” In 1954, Muddy Waters sang Willie Dixon’s lyrics to “Hoochie Coochie Man” and in the third verse, said: “On the seventh hour / On the seventh day / On the seventh month / The seven doctors say / He was born for good luck / And that you’ll see / I got seven hundred dollars / Don’t you mess with me.” Richardson likewise uses her seven signs to ingeniously stir up the speakers’ more abstract memories of the South. The speaker moves through parishes and townships seeing road signs, but these are also signs of divination. Richardson’s “sign” poems use a playful, heartbreaking push-pull mechanism to address this question. She praises and confronts—at the same time—the bloody, scarred landscape of the “South” in all its iterations.

My complaint here is that the book fails to make a distinction between the New and Old South, and it remains unclear, and sometimes this is done irresponsibly. For example, in the ironic poem “Note, upon Learning That Jimmie Davis Did Not Compose ‘You Are My Sunshine,'” the poem uses 12 tercets to celebrate a song—a song everybody knows—that is associated closely with Louisiana. It is a love poem that is both earnest and ironic. It recalls the story that Governor Davis rode a horse up the steps of the Baton Rouge capitol. But what the poem coyly does not reveal is that he did this to protest integration. (Davis’s master’s thesis was apparently titled “Comparative Intelligence of Whites, Blacks and Mulattoes”). The poem is somewhat sentimental (“How many times did I imagine your journey, / farmhouse to the wide stone steps, / on the sloping back of Sunshine—”) because it tries to evoke a childhood memory that is incapable of meeting eye-to-eye the reality of the history at stake. Editor’s Note: See the comments to this review for the full text of this poem.

It is impossible to discuss the South without discussing race, and a poem like that does not address it. There is an academic debate on how history is told in public space (a poem is a public space), and it cannot be resolved in one book and definitely not in a single review (Cf. Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America or Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero). However, many of the poems in Copperhead begin with the local (the first-person singular) and move outward from there. As a technique, this makes perfect sense and is a successful, accurate mode. I think the larger question that must be addressed is one of tone.

The poems in Copperhead use the deeply wrought questions with which it is concerned to wisely come up with a sort of memoir, which is attaching deeply felt memories with deeply felt language, thus making it literature. When this poems do their best, there are as thrilling and expertly made as the best poems you love, but I think there are more strategic, and more nuanced questions beyond those of personal memories—such as race—that remain less successful.

One final concern has to do not with the writing of the book, but with its production. The “To Market To Market Jiggety-Jig” aspect of American poetry business necessitates that the writer get blurbs for the back cover praising it in order to sell it. Whoever bought a book because of the blurbs is a separate question. One such blurb on Richardson’s book describes it as a “gorgeous river song fast-rising above the heart’s levee.” This is the kind of thing that sure sounds wonderful and pretty, but is vacant and meaningless. There should be a moratorium on such things. The poems in Copperhead are fine without frilly lace and pink bows to tidy them up for the poetry prom.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →